When the 2010 U.S. Census showed Massachusetts did not have enough residents to keep 10 representatives on Capitol Hill, lawmakers had to cut a congressional district and Niki Tsongas saw hers dramatically redrawn and expanded.
Stretching mostly north and south from Haverhill to Wayland, her Congressional 5th District took a east-west shift to a New Hampshire border-hugging district stretching from Fitchburg to the Merrimack Valley. It was renamed the 3rd Congressional District and includes 11 new communities.
But did the geographical shift and expansion of the district also mean a shift in the make-up of the electorate?
Jon Golnik, a Carlisle Republican who is challenging Tsongas for the congressional seat for a second time, seems to think new district will help him score an upset Nov. 6. In 2010, Tsongas beat Golnik by a margin of 55 to 42 percent (122,858 votes to 94,646).
“The district is so big now,” s
aid Golnik. “Republicans can win out there. That’s obviously good for us.”
But local political watchers said the redrawn map is unlikely to play a significant part in the outcome.
“I don’t see — in terms of the make up of the district — it being that different,” said Frank Talty, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
“Tsongas won with this sort of configuration twice. In a year (2010) where there was a Republican sweep, she was able to win.”
Richard Padova, a professor of history and political science at Northern Essex Community College, said the new district remains largely moderate to liberal despite the addition of several rural communities.
“Overall I would still say it’s primarily the Democrats’ to lose,” said Padova. “A lot of towns are fairly conservative, no doubt. Overall, I would say the district is a safe one for the Dem
A comparison of party enrollment da
ta from the current 5th and new 3rd districts reveals very little change in political identity. In the 5th District, Democrats make up 32.8 percent of registered voters, Republicans 12.4 percent and unenrolled voters 54.7 percent.
In the newly-configured 3rd District, the number of registered Democrats drops slightly to 31.6 percent while the number of Republicans and unenrolled increase slightly to 12.7 and 55 percent, respectively.
“In terms of enrollment, the net effect is unchanged,” said Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat who won the seat in 2007. “We’re not running a presidential campaign. We’r
e running a congressional campaign. It’s the whole of the district you seek to represent.”
In recent elections, Republicans have performed well in the new communities coming to the district. U.S. Senate candidate Scott Brown and gubernatorial challenger Charlie Baker swept all 11 cities and towns in 2010.
The new 3rd District will inherit nine communities now represented by U.S. Rep. John Olver, D-Amherst, and in 2010 Olver lost six of them to Republican challenger William Gunn.
Three towns — Ashby, Townsend and Pepperell — also voted for John McCain over Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.
The new 3rd District, which becomes effective Jan. 1, 2013, was redrawn by the state legislature.
The new district still includes Lowell, Lawrence, Haverhill, Methuen and Andover in the Merrimack Valley, but now extends westward to the cities of Fitchburg and Gardner and seven nearby towns in Middlesex and Worcester counties.
Clinton and Marlborough to the south round out the new additions. All together, the new 3rd District spans three counties and consists of six cities and 31 towns — 26 of them retained from the current 5th District, which Tsongas has represented since 2007.
Lost to redistricting are Billerica, Tewksbury, Wayland and all but one precinct in Sudbury.
“Just when you think Beacon Hill won’t do anything to help a challenger, we’re pretty happy with the way the new district has been drawn,” Golnik said. “Any time you move further away
from Lowell, and (Tsongas’) name, it’s almost like running for an open seat.”